Beware of the ignorant consultants, beware of LAME

So I was listening to the OnSoftware podcast (which is, by the way, a very bad podcast, so bad I’m not even linking to it!).

In one of the latest episodes (actually 2 episodes) Jean Tabaka was interviewed. Jean now works with Rally Software and apparently (according to her, in that podcast) is facing the change of focus from Agile to Lean when she meets with top management at different companies she consults with.

So far so good, the real problem was when she started to describe what she thinks Lean means. She got it all wrong!!!!

Here’s an example. She says that Toyota’s Production System was started to be developed in 1950’s when Toyota people went to the USA to learn how to produce cars: Wrong! Toyota’s production system roots go back to the years when they were still producing looms. They did visit Ford and GM in the 1950’s (and other American companies) interested understanding how the Americans were manufacturing and managing the manufacturing process. But that was long after they faced on the the founding moments of Toyota’s philosophy: the 1930’s near bankruptcy that shaped their commitment and respect for people.

When visiting America Toyota were especially interested in the way that Ford were producing cars and managing their factories. They were led there by Henry Ford’s description of his ideas about mass production in the book Today and Tomorrow as well as by the concept of “supermarket” which led to the ideas behind reduced inventory and Kanban.

So, Jean please learn your history before you go and talk to leaders at the companies that hire you (and for a high price I bet!).

But the mistakes did not stop there. Jean correctly traces the start of the Lean production method in Toyota to Taiichi Ohno (he was not alone however!), but calls him a consultant that was sent to the US and then back to Japan to teach Toyota about the production methods from the US: Wrong again!

The actual transformation in Toyota started with the Toyoda family itself! It was Eiji Toyoda that went to the US and upon his return gave an assignment to Taiichi Ohno who was at that time an Assembly Manager (not a Consultant BTW Jean!)

Then Jean makes it worse! She states the changes in Toyota’s implementation of the Ford (and American) production model were due to the “waste and bloat” that they saw in Ford’s method. The waste and bloat that Jean talks about was there, but not for Ford — only for Toyota. The fact was the the Japanese market was tiny compared to the American market, Toyota did not have the luxury of producing massive amounts of 1 or 2 models (very few in any case). Toyota’s market was much smaller and fractured. They needed to learn to produce many models in the same manufacturing line to allow them to change the production mix at all times (to respond to market needs) and that was what led to their transformation of Ford’s ideas. Not the bloat and waste they saw! Indeed the early TPS implementers admired what they learned during their visit to America in the 1930’s (i.e. before World War II).

However, some of the techniques that were used in the TPS (Toyota Production System) were older than that. Already Eiji’s uncle (Sakichi) was building automated looms with some of the techniques that were later to be a key part of the TPS. An example is Jidoka, Eiji’s uncle had invented a method to stop an automated loom if one of the threads broke during operation. This allowed one person to supervise many looms and increased tremendously the productivity of factories with the Toyoda Looms.

Then Jean goes on to talk about the “seven principles of Lean”, there are no “seven principles of Lean”. Seven was the number of principles that Mary and Tom Poppendieck defined in their book Lean Software Development. What Jean should have said was “seven principles of Lean Software Development”, but she would not do that because her idea is to sell “Lean” to upper management and clearly separate it from the “software” word.

In fact “Lean” was the word coined by Womack and Jones in their “The machine that changed the world” to describe the focus on the removal of waste they saw in Japan. Womack and Jones enunciated 5 principles that describe Lean, but in fact the Toyota Production System (TPS) is much more than that. TPS was later exhaustively studied and described by many people, among whom Jeffrey Liker is one of the most well regarded authority at this point in time.

Value and Waste

Jean goes on to talk about Value and Waste, she is very superficial in her definition of Waste, which plays well with the equally superficial view that many top managers have on Lean (and therefore it’s terminology).

When talking about Value vs. Waste Jean completely forgets the key distinction between the two: the customer. In Lean Software Development (as in Mary and Tom’s work) and TPS the customer is the one that decides what is value (and therefore what is waste = not value).

Mary and Tom Poppendieck have done a very good job of making this clear in their talks and presentations. It is the customer that defines what is value or waste, not the people inside the organization.

Later in the podcast (which has two parts of 6-7 min each) the interviewer asks about how to “sell executives on Agile” with “Flow pull and innovate”, and describes those as words from Lean, this is obviously wrong. Flow and Pull are part of Womack and Jones’ work, but “innovate” is just another buzzword added by Jean to “shape” the marketing message.

Then Jean goes on to define “lean thinking” with 5 principles is a higher level extraction of Lean. What does that mean? Please stop with the marketing already!

“Lean thinking” is another book by Womack and Jones that tries to describe how to implement a “Lean Enterprise”. If you want to know more about Womack and Jones’ work you are better off going to the Lean Enterprise Institute than listening to Jean. In fact, when in comes to Lean DON’T listen Jean, she clearly does not know (at least yet) what she is talking about.

A Critique of Womack and Jones’ five principls

What Jean (and many others for that matter) don’t get is that Womack and Jones’ work is eminently practice-focused, as in “how do I implement this?” to the extent that we could even say that it is focused on answering the question “how do I implement this even if I don’t understand it (nor do I want to)?”
This was of course, not the intention. But when “The Machine that Changed the World” and later “Lean Thinking” were published that is how it ended up to be.

In this context we have to be critical of the use of the word “principle” together with “Flow and Pull”. Flow and Pull are just instances of the expert implementation of TPS (as opposed to “Lean”). Pull is implemented as a combination of Just-in-Time and Kanban practices (and others), and it’s goal is to achieve even (sustainable in the Agile terminology) workloads which lead to less variability and hence less rework and overburden which are some of the wastes identified by the TPS creators and also described by Mary and Tom in their Lean Software Development book.

Flow is what is achieved by combining several techniques, including Pull.

The 5 principles

Womack and Jones describe Value Stream, Flow, Pull and Pursue Perfection as principles, but that is considered a narrow view of TPS by many in the Lean Community who look at the work by Jeffrey Liker and others as a much better description of what TPS is. Liker focuses on the “whole” of the TPS, not just it’s tools and practices and goes on to describe that the 2 fundamental principles that Toyota themselves apply in their implementation of TPS (especially outside Japan) are “Respect for People” and “Continuous Improvement”


In the Lean Community Mark Graban has done a good job at describing what he has seen in manufacturing as Lean implemented without depth. He calls it LAME: Lean As Misguidedly Executed. What Jean did in that podcast is LAME also: Lean As Misguidedly Explained.

Jean has done some good work in the Agile Community it is down-right scary to see someone that is engaged and understands Agility use Lean as a marketing trick and not even going through the effort of understanding what she is talking about.

It’s a shame.


  • A fairly good article in Wikipedia about TPS.
  • The Toyota Way, by Jeffrey Liker. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the “real Toyota Production System”.
  • Lean Software Development, by Mary and Tom Poppendieck. Highly recommended for anyone in the software industry. Mary and Tom have real-life experience with Lean. Mary’s account of her work at 3M is enlightening and a very good insight into understanding lean
  • Toyota’s web site, full of stories about the TPS
  • An article by Time Asian about the history of Toyota

4 thoughts on “Beware of the ignorant consultants, beware of LAME

  1. Hi Vasco,

    Thank you for listening to my podcast about Lean and for your variety of insights into the origins of Lean such as the Toyoda family work and their loom industry. I’m well acquainted with those origins so I am glad you brought that forward in a way that I did not make clearly. Also, thank you for adding clarity about the 5 Lean Thinking principles by Womack and Jones. That is a very valued book in my library and I frequently refer to Flow Pull and Perfect along with Value and Value Stream Mapping when I am talking with executives about their Agile adoptions.

    The work that Tom and Mary Poppendieck did around the 7 principles was, I believe, associated with Lean Manufacturing and Mary’s work at 3M. They then re-applied the seven wastes of maufacturing to the 7 wastes of software. You should be able to find validation of that material in their first book.

    I’m surprised at your conclusion that my views about Lean are just for marketing. I’m disappointed you have dismissed me as ignorant. So I think the podcast did miss its mark. I absolutely believe that Lean is the guide for organizational, sustainable adoption of Agile. I hope we agree about that.

    You have provided a very thorough disassemblage of the podcast detail. In that, I thank you for your clarity around Taiichi Ohno’s role as an employee versus a consultant. That may be a more interesting than useful piece of guidance to provide about the ultimate role he played in the TPS. But it seemed an important distinction for you to make, so there it is.

    In any case, I wholeheartedly agree with you that the best source for detailed guidance around Lean is from the Lean Enterprise Institute It tends to be delivered without negative emotion and with a great combination of the abstract and the practical. Along with the books you cited as excellent references for Lean, I would add “The Machine that Changed the World” also by Womack and Jones, as well as “The Elegant Solution” by Matthew May. And for folks interested in applying the A3 approach to their current industries, I’d recommend “Managing to Learn” by John Shook and only available through LEI. You might also consider the Michael Kennedy book on “Product Development for the Lean Enterprise” and his subsequent book “Ready Set Dominate” as guides for real practical ways to apply Lean regardless of your industry.

    Writing a more upbeat, positive blog, or delivering your own podcast, on your insights about those books and other work affiliated with the LEI would be most welcome.

  2. Jean, thanks for commenting on this blog post.

    The format of a short, not thorough podcast can always have the danger of letting a lot of the interviewee’s knowledge unexplained. Short format podcasts tend to try to cover too much ground and end-up leaving many questions un-answered. That may be why I got the impression of a “marketing” speech.

    Should you want to correct that mis-impression feel free to send an article to me I’ll gladly publish it in this blog.

    However, the main point of my blog post (the consultants that take over Lean (or Agile) to sell more) is still valid, even if it does not apply to you.

    Should you want me to publish a post about Lean in response to my original post feel free to contact me at vasco dot duarte, the company is nokia dawt com.

    Alternatively you can post it in your own blog and I’ll gladly link to it.

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